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Ile de Ré - the guide to the must-see sites

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May 17, 2024

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Visiting the Ile de Ré – the ultimate guide to the must-see sites

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The Ile de Ré, nestled in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and accessible via a 3 km bridge from La Rochelle, is a haven of peace for a memorable holiday, whether you are travelling with your family, your partner, or with friends. Visiting the Ile de Ré fascinates with its 10 charming villages, its fine sandy beaches, the famous Baleines lighthouse, its salt marshes and the Lilleau des Niges nature reserve, offering a getaway rich in cultural and heritage discoveries.

This ultimate guide invites you to explore the Ile de Ré, its natural and cultural heritage, and its traditions through its must-see sites and a myriad of activities. Renowned for being a “cycling island”, it is dotted with cycle paths allowing you to criss-cross between land and sea while savouring its local specialities: oysters, salt, caramel, and the famous potatoes of Ré.

Embark on an unforgettable adventure on the Ile de Ré. Let us guide you!

The historical and cultural jewels of the Ile de Ré

The Ile de Ré is a natural setting that is home to a rich historical and cultural heritage. As you travel around the island, you can discover monuments and museums that tell the story of the exceptional history and heritage of this place.

Explore these must-sees during your visit:

Vauban’s fortifications in Saint-Martin-de-Ré

A historic capital, Saint-Martin-de-Ré is renowned for its imposing fortifications erected by Vauban in the seventeenth century, at the time of Louis XIV, with the aim of defending the city and its port from English invasions. These fortifications are the pride of the island, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.

Admire the ramparts, bastions, monumental gates, the moat and the glacis that surround the city. Don’t miss the citadel, which now serves as a prison, and the church’s observatory bell tower, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the city and beyond.

The Phare des Baleines : a giant facing the ocean

Located at the western tip of the island, in the town of Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, the Phare des Baleines takes its name from the many whales that once washed up there. It succeeds the old lighthouse built by Vauban in 1682, located a few meters away.

visit the Ile de Ré - the Phare des Baleines

Visit the Ile de Ré – the Lighthouse of the Whales

Erected between 1849 and 1854, this lighthouse is one of the tallest in France. With its 57 meters high and 257 steps, it offers an impressive view of the Ile de Ré and the ocean, complemented by a museum dedicated to the history of lighthouses and navigation. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful lighthouses in Charente Maritime.

The charming Abbey of Châteliers

This former Cistercian abbey, founded in 1156 by the monks of Pontigny, is located in La Flotte-en-Ré, in the eastern part of the island. It was the cradle of the island’s wine and salt production, despite the destruction due to the Wars of Religion and the English invasions.

Today, only majestic ruins remain, classified as a historical monument in 1990. A visit to the remains, including the abbey church, the cloister, the refectory and the monastic cells, is a must.

The observatory bell tower of Ars-en-Ré

Ars-en-Ré, with its emblematic white bell tower topped by a black spire, stands out in the landscape of the island. Belonging to the 15th century Saint-Étienne church, classified as a historical monument, this bell tower serves as a landmark for sailors.

After climbing its 117 steps, you will be rewarded with an exceptional view of the village, the port, the salt marshes and of course, the Ile de Ré.

The Ernest Cognacq Museum: a dive into the history of the island

Located in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the Ernest Cognacq Museum, established in the former 15th-century Hôtel de Clerjotte, offers a window on art and history. It takes its name from Ernest Cognacq, the founder of La Samaritaine, a Parisian department store, a native of the Ile de Ré, who bequeathed his personal collection to the museum. This cultural institution traces the historical evolution of the Ile de Ré, from its first inhabitants to the contemporary era, through its permanent collections. It also highlights Vauban’s fortifications, maritime history, local ceramics, and the visual arts through its various thematic rooms.

In addition to its permanent exhibition, the museum regularly enriches its offer with various temporary exhibitions and cultural events, inviting discovery and learning.

In the heart of the nature of the island: between land and sea

Discover the Ile de Ré, a true natural jewel offering a mosaic of landscapes as diverse as they are preserved. Whether your passion is wildlife, the ocean, or the mainland, this island has unparalleled wonders in store for you. Explore some must-see sights :

The Lilleau des Niges National Nature Reserve: a space of biodiversity

Located in the north on the Ile de Ré, the Lilleau des Niges National Nature Reserve covers 341 hectares with 121 hectares designated as a nature reserve since 1980. This protected area is home to salt marshes and mudflats, essential for many species of birds, including migratory birds.

With more than 300 species of birds recorded, some of which are endangered such as the king avocet or the bluethroat, the reserve is a sanctuary for wildlife. There are also mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants typical of saline environments. Guided tours are offered to discover the richness of this natural and cultural heritage.

The salt marshes: a landscape between tradition and nature

Essential to the heritage of the Ile de Ré, the salt marshes attest to the island’s former salt-farming vocation. A hundred or so salt workers still perpetuate the traditional art of harvesting sea salt, inherited from the Middle Ages.

Ile de Ré - The salt marshes

Ile de Ré – The salt marshes

The marsh landscape consists of three groups: the mudflat, the metières and the marsh field, where the seawater evaporates until the salt crystallizes. This natural spectacle varies in color and appearance according to the season and the light. The local flora and fauna are just as unique. A guided tour by a salt worker offers you an insight into this ancestral profession and its products.

The island’s beaches: from wild expanses to the tranquility of coves

With more than 60 km of beaches, the Ile de Ré enchants swimmers, surfers, fishermen and walkers. The beaches vary from large stretches of fine sand to more secret coves. The southern beaches, such as Gros Jonc and Les Prises, promise entertainment and leisure, while the north offers wilder and more peaceful corners, such as the Conche des Baleines or Trousse Chemise. Here you will find crystal clear waters and unspoiled nature. The Charente Maritime is full of beautiful sandy beaches, such as those of Royan.

A bike ride on the cycle paths: discovering varied landscapes

The Ile de Ré lends itself wonderfully to exploring by bike, with its 138 km of cycle paths crossing the coastline, vineyards, and alleys. It is the perfect opportunity to admire the various faces of the island and to visit its picturesque villages, their markets, ports, churches and museums. Whatever your pace, the cycle paths of the Ile de Ré will invite you to adventure.

A bike ride on the Ile de Ré

A bike ride on the Ile de Ré

Immerse yourself in local life: activities and traditions

Explore the Ile de Ré far beyond its natural landscapes and relaxation areas, immersing yourself in its rich culture and precious heritage. To experience the Ile de Ré as its inhabitants do is to open up to the activities and traditions that forge its unique identity. Discover authentic experiences for real immersion:

Visit to the local markets: a festival of flavours

A privileged meeting point for lovers of good food and the curious, the local markets of each village on the island offer a multitude of fresh and quality products directly from the local region. Whether you are attracted by seasonal fruit and vegetables, fish and seafood, cheeses, meats, breads, cakes, jams, wines, salt, spices, flowers… There is something to satisfy all tastes and budgets.

It is also the ideal opportunity to meet local producers and taste the island’s specialties such as oysters from the Ile de Ré, potatoes from Ré, salted butter caramel, saffron from Ré, or the famous jams from the bell tower.

Tasting at the producers: salt, oysters, and local wines

For a more in-depth exploration of the gastronomic treasures of the island, visit the local farms. The producers welcome you to share with you the secrets of their profession and their products. Discover the magic of the salt pans and the subtle stages of sea salt harvesting, from coarse salt to fleur de sel. Enjoy salt in all its forms, including derivatives such as donkey milk soaps.

The oyster beds offer a privileged moment to understand the passion of oyster farmers for the sea and its delicacies, with a tasting of oysters accompanied by a local white wine. Also visit the island’s vineyards for an introduction to the grape varieties and winemaking methods that characterize the island’s wines, including whites, rosés, reds and spirits such as Pineau des Charentes or cognac.

The “donkeys in breeches”: an unusual and touching tradition

Adored for their original tradition dating back to the 19th century, the “donkeys in breeches” of the Ile de Ré represent a charming part of its history. Once dressed in canvas breeches to protect themselves from insects in the marshes, these donkeys are now symbols of the island and offer walks to children from the Barbette park in Saint-Martin de Ré. Don’t miss the conservatory breeding of Baudet du Poitou, a rare and old breed of donkey, on the outskirts of the village of Loix.

If you are a fan of animals, a family getaway to La Rochelle to visit the famous aquarium would be a good idea.

Atelier Quillet: testimony to the know-how of the French region

The Atelier Quillet in Loix embodies the cultural heritage and ancestral know-how of the Ile de Ré, specialising in the conservation, restoration and binding of old documents. Recognized as a “Living Heritage Company”, the workshop collaborates with prestigious institutions such as the National Library of France, the Senate, or the Louvre Museum. Guided tours of the workshop available to admire the restoration, binding, gilding or marbling techniques used, observe the conservation machines and tools, and discover the restored works of art. The Atelier Quillet also has a bookshop where old books, posters, maps, and engravings are available.

Seasonal Experiences: From Salt Picking to Sailing

The Ile de Ré is a privileged place to indulge in unique seasonal activities, offering a real dive into the daily life of the inhabitants and the enhancement of local treasures. Take part in the traditional salt picking by joining a salt worker in the heart of the salt marshes: an opportunity to learn the techniques and movements necessary to harvest this precious marine condiment.

Sailing is also waiting for you: embark on an emblematic boat of the region, such as a sardine boat or a traditional sailboat, to explore the magnificent landscapes of the island seen from the sea.

It is also an opportunity to learn about shellfish and seaweed guided by an expert, in search of shellfish, crustaceans or seaweed along the foreshore. Finally, let yourself be seduced by a cycling getaway, traveling the many bike lanes that cross the island, offering you varied views of the coasts, vineyards, narrow alleys and salt marshes.

Finally, the Ile de Ré is a good starting point to visit La Rochelle and its famous towers.

What to do in La Rochelle photo of the old port

What to do in La Rochelle – photo of the old port

They are located on the old port, close to the wooden city which makes it a good destination for a getaway from the Ile de Ré.

Conclusion

The Ile de Ré is an idyllic holiday destination in France, offering an exceptionally preserved natural environment. It is a place where the simple pleasures of life are in the spotlight: you can enjoy the blue of the sea, the warmth of the sun, the caress of the wind and the diversity of the landscapes. The island also invites you to dive into its past, to enrich yourself with its culture, heritage and traditions, which together weave the fabric of its unique charm and undeniable authenticity.

Whatever your aspirations – relaxation, discovery, sports activities or gastronomic pleasures – the Ile de Ré will satisfy all your desires with its richness and diversity. So don’t hesitate any longer, and plan your holiday on the Ile de Ré without delay! It’s a decision you certainly won’t regret.

FAQ

What is the most beautiful part of the Ile de Ré?

The beauty of the Ile de Ré is a matter of personal taste, but generally, its sandy beaches and salt marshes captivate visitors the most. The beaches are ideal for swimming, water activities and walks. As for the salt marshes, they offer a unique natural spectacle, thanks to their rich biodiversity. The village of Les Portes-en-Ré is often referred to as the most charming and attractive on the island.

How to visit the Ile de Ré?

There are several ways to explore the Ile de Ré: – Cycling around the island along the many cycle paths offers an immersive experience in the diversity of the landscapes. – Discover the picturesque villages, the beaches, the salt marshes, the Phare des Baleines, the Fort de la Prée, the Abbey of Châteliers, among other cultural and natural wonders.

What is the prettiest village on the Ile de Ré?

Choosing the prettiest village on the Ile de Ré is a matter of personal preference. However, Ars-en-Ré frequently stands out as a favourite, renowned for being one of the most beautiful villages on the island and even in France. This charming village, with its port, church with its iconic black and white bell tower, traditional white houses with green shutters, as well as salt marshes and nature reserve, has a lot to offer.

Where to go for a walk on Ile de Ré?

The options for walks on the Ile de Ré are varied and depend on your interests: – For nature lovers, the Lilleau des Niges National Nature Reserve is a must. This protected site is home to exceptional fauna and flora. The Baleines lighthouse, meanwhile, offers an impressive view of the ocean and the marshes. – If you are passionate about heritage and culture, the observatory bell tower of the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Martin-de-Ré is a must-see for its fascinating history. The fortifications and the park of the “donkeys in breeches” in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the work of Vauban and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also major sites of interest.

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